I looked at the wall opposite me. It was blank with a singular portrait of a mother holding her baby in the closest embrace. I felt the coldness of the dead fingers of my mother. A tear rolled down my cheeks. This had been the most cherished portrait that I had drawn of my mother. She had brought me up amidst difficulties. She had always found means to comfort me, but never asked them for herself. After the death of my father she had taken care of me. She had never complained. I had always loved her, respected her and had thought of her as a goddess. But today I know I was not even her son. I was illegitimate.
The ringing of the bell awoke me from my thoughts. I saw that my friends had gathered at the door. My teachers had also gathered at the door. But I was looking for the one face that should have comforted me although I was not sure of that. But still I wished Miss Medini would have been near me.
Miss Medini had been my favourite teacher since the time she joined the school. I cannot recall when and why I started liking her. But I always felt that she was like my mother, forgiving and loving. Everyday of my life was special to me. I had my Maa and I had Miss Medini in my life. My mother was a poor uneducated maid working in the school; Miss Medini was highly educated working as a senior teacher in the school. My mother had to work to gain the kindness of the principal to keep me in the school without paying the fees; Miss Medini paid for my fees and my books and gave me free tuitions. But for me they were both the same. They loved me.
Maa had been fighting with her disease for a long time. Miss Medini seemed to know it for a long time. She often came to our house not only to tutor me but also to pay for my Maa’s illness. One day she told me that Maa has to be shifted to the hospital. I knew something was wrong, something that they hid from me. But it did not take me long to know. Maa was suffering from cancer.
I had been the best loved student in the school. Therefore when my mother fell ill I had many to share my sorrow. But the person who supported me most was Miss Medini. Her presence had become so usual at home that it became difficult to tell that she was only a visitor at home who had come to help us in our difficult times. I revered her for that. But today I also hate her.
Maa was unusually ill today. It seemed that time was up with her. She had been bed-ridden for the past few months. But she had not looked so sick ever. But today morning she had asked me to be with her. I did not know why she looked so different that day. She would not ask me to come to her or ask me to hold her hand. She only looked at me without saying anything. At length I saw a tear rolling down her cheeks. I thought that she was sad at the thought that she was dying and I would be left alone. I put her head on my lap. I said softly to her, “Maa, do not worry. Everything would be all right.” But she broke down crying. Her lips moved. I bent low, for she could not speak clearly then. I heard her whisper, “I am sorry. I lied to you all my life. You are not my own son.” I looked at her unblinking. She said again, “Your father had told me that a woman handed you to him because she did not want her teenager daughter to be accused by the society.”
I tried to fight back my tears. I said slowly, “Do you know anything about my mother?” “No, nothing. I have no memory of her except a letter she sent to my husband which I could never read,” said Maa.
My mother held my hand. “Would you hate me for not being your mother?” I said nothing. But my head was in a tumult. I was struggling to keep quite. But I kept on asking myself. ‘Why should I be told I am illegitimate when I had never known it?’ I had never thought I would look into that ugly face of fate.
The doctors declared that my mother was dead. It did not take long for me to cremate my mother. Soon she was nothing but a heap of ashes. I sat by her pyre for a long time. I was trying to find the soul of my mother in her. In a moment she had disowned me. I was no longer her son. That day I lost my identity.
I spent a long time at my home trying to find the letter that ‘my mother’ must have written. I did not want to go back to the mother who disowned me, but I was looking for my identity which I had lost years ago. A thought had occurred to me that I should go back to my mother. Nay, I did not want her to accept me as her son. But I wanted to see if my sight should fill her with love, or if possibly she should disown me. Would she hate me, or recognize me as her lost child. A thousand questions filled me.
I found her letter in a little box hidden under my father’s old clothes. I held it in my hands for moments together. A sudden thrill filled me. At last I knew who I was. My lost identity was in my hands. I had just to unfold the old letter torn at the folds. I hesitated. I was frightened to lose my identity. Till now I knew I belonged to someone. But it was frightening to cast myself into the unknown. I did not want to lose myself. I lent against the wall. My senses dimmed into unconsciousness.
The next morning I found myself sleeping on the cold ground. My back was aching. I got up with a little jerk. I stood up and walked to the toilet habitually. The cold water washed away my tiredness. I walked slowly to the kitchen. I had not eaten since the last day and I was hungry. Some leftovers from yesterday’s food did have a good effect on my appetite, but could not satisfy my hunger entirely. I walked back to the place where I had slept the previous night. The letter still lay on the ground…open.
I read through the letter. I reread it unbelieving, surprised and…wounded. I felt my eyes moisten. I did not fight back my tears. I let them flow. I threw away the letter in disgust. For hours together, I cannot say how many, I sat reclining against the wall, crying uncontrollably. The past was speaking to me. I could walk out and claim my parentage. All I needed was a little courage. But the future seemed to taunt me. I pictured my friends laughing at me. Or even worse… my parents refusing my claim on their love.
I struggled to come to a conclusion. But indecision loomed over my thoughts. I fidgeted with the letter. I read it again. The letter was simple, written probably in a hurry, using too little of vocabulary. The few words had much to say,
Mother had little to tell me, or to say that she refused to tell me. But I am still thankful to her that she left my child with you. I might never know my child, but atleast I know that he is safe with you.
Thank you, Medini
I thought of all the possibilities. I had pictured my mother as married and settled with her family with no place for me in her heart when Maa dying on the hospital bed told me about her. She might never have regretted of her past. But now those possibilities had been ruled out. Was Miss Medini my mother? May be she knew it. Then what was stopping her from reaching out to me. Was she concerned about the society. She ofcourse had a good name in the town. Why should she sacrifice that for my sake, a illegitimate child, a mistake of her past. “Selfish,” I growled to myself. I broke into a fresh frenzy of sobs. I realized again with growing irritation, I belonged to no one. I felt a strong urge to run out of the house, straight into her arms claiming, pleading that I was a part of her, and if she should refuse I would demand it from her. If she should refuse I would pull off her disguise in front of the whole world. Or if I could fill myself with courage, I should kill myself at her feet, so that atleast she should hold my dead body to her heart and shed a few tears for me.
And then suddenly my thoughts wavered off to a different direction. What if she was not my mother? There was every possibility of that. Maa had never told me that her husband was named Maheshji. She called him by a strange name, I never recalled it since he died when I could not even pronounce it, and his name had meant little to me for I had never felt his need in my life.
I heard a knock at the door. Someone had come from the principal’s office with some money and food. I thanked him and let him go.
I closed the door behind me and walked to the loneliness of my house. But I had not even sat down when the bell rang irritatingly. Some friends had come to see me. I had a little talk with them. Soon they were gone. I was again left lonely. I felt the loneliness of my own house unbearable. Only then did I realize how badly I needed someone to talk to. I could not bear my loneliness. I was never used to it. I needed to hear soothing words to assuage my pain. I needed my mother.
The long walk from my house to the school quarters seemed too long. I had never felt tired of walking to my school. But now it seemed that I had never ever walked such a long distance. Some of my friends saw me and tried to smile back. But I was not interested in them. Suddenly as I started walking to Miss Medini’s house, I realized that I wanted to be there, all alone. I avoided them.
Dahlia’s of different hues blocked my path as I walked to her quarter. This was the proudest garden in the whole school. But now it seemed that its owner was no longer interested in it. I picked up a fallen branch of a rose bush and put it aside. I looked around. Someone was looking at me from behind a bush. It was a little kitten. It ran away from me. I followed it as it ran along the path leading to the house.
And then I stopped.
My feet refused to move. Miss Medini, the name seemed too difficult to pronounce when I added Maa to it. She couldn’t be my mother. I resolved I would walk back. I did not want her. She had no right to bring me forth when she did not want me.
I turned to go. But the nagging voice in my mind seemed to jeer me. I was a coward, like my parents. They refused me and now I was refusing to accept what I was. I turned back.
And I stood rooted on the path.
She was standing in front of me. She said softly, “Why were you going back without meeting me?”
Tears began to gather at the corners of my eyes. Here was my mother. I hated her. Yet suddenly I began to feel a surge of happiness overcome me as I looked into those soft kind eyes reddened by constant crying. I felt maternal love returning to me unbounded, unmeasured.
She said, “I heard about your mother’s death.” A pain rose in my heart. I was still unclaimed. Then she said slowly, “I should have come. I did not. I am sorry.” I decided to move away. There was nothing that I needed from her, nor did she.
And yet now she was walking towards me, her arms open, her tears flowing endlessly. She gathered me in her arms, crying uncontrollably. I remembered the first time when she had seen me. She had gathered me in her arms in the same way as she did now. And it was all the same. I wondered why I still adored her affectionate embrace, now when I had resolved that I would hate her forever.
“My child, I am really sorry for everything. But my own past had opened up with your mother’s death. I had also lost something that was too dear to me. Something that I had never dreamt of, and when I got it I lost it without a warning”, she said as she made me sit on the big sofa which had been my comfortable seat in those days when I loved to visit her house. She sat near me caressing my hair with her fingers. I felt oddly uncomfortable. Why was she doing it? I meant to go away, but her affection was binding me.
And then suddenly she broke off into my trail of thoughts. She began in a slow tone, the usual melody of her tone heightened for she spoke so slowly now. “Do you know why I loved you the most, always above all. You make me remember something that I had lost a long time back”
She stopped and hesitated. But the curious look in my eyes must have sent her the message. I wanted to hear everything however painful it might be. She began, “I was young then and stupid too. I was just out of high school. I was free to decide for myself for the first time. It was a nice time hanging with friends, calling them whenever I wished to and returning late if there was a party at my friend’s house. My parents trusted me and therefore I was free. Yes I was free. And then Naveen came to my life. He was a nice boy. I liked him, even my parents. The freedom widened, for they believed him too. And we believed each other that we will not commit anything that was wrong. But we faulted.”
She stopped suddenly. I saw she bit her lips trying to suppress a cry. I did not know if I should say something. But she began again, this time a little anger in her voice, “I did not even realize what was happening to me until my mother observed it. She was furious at both of us. Even his parents were angry. Marriage was of course the solution but it was not the right time for us. And then the two families decided that I should deliver the child out of town.”
A brief pause followed. Then she resumed, “Naveen could force mother to take him with us. It was comforting for I was young and terribly frightened of my mother. But a sudden change came over mother as soon as we arrived at the hospital. The sudden turn of events took a toll on my health. I would lie quietly on the hospital bed with either my mother or Naveen at my side always to provide me company and comfort. It was therefore possible that my mother had grown kinder to me.
As the days advanced my health fell. But now it was not for my health that I was fearing. I wanted to keep alive my child.” There was sudden interruption. She was suddenly smiling, but it soon faded away. “My child was probably the best thing that I possessed at that time. I wanted to have him soon. I feared to tell it to everyone, because it the only thing that was making Maa and Naveen bitter. They did not want my child. That I was sure of. But there was something else that I came to realize. Maa was bitter with my child for I was growing sick. Once I even heard her whisper under her breath, “I wish the damm thing was out soon.” I soon realized it was only maternal love. She had the same concern for me as I was developing about my own unborn child.
But my child was not an unwanted piece of thing. It was mine, and even if Naveen also considered it a mistake, I felt happy that I had commited that mistake. It was blissful to know that a new creature had rooted inside me. Everyday the little creature brought happy dreams to me. I waited patiently for the day when it would sleep peacefully in my arms. The tension, the weakness and the fear that enveloped me day and night no longer concerned me. I made it a part of my existence, for I was waiting for the beautiful future that I would spend with my child.”
My heart began to beat faster. I was hearing the tale of my unknown past. It excited me. I was even beginning to feel happier. Afterall she had loved me.
And then suddenly she had taken my face in her hands, “You were just like the child I had always dreamt of.”
I began to scrutinize my plain figures. I was rather plain compared to her beauty. I was puzzled that she should have dreamt of such an odd child as me. I was not short, but not too tall as well. My hair fell out in curls and it rather displeased me. I was darker compared to her fair skin. My nose was just a stub in the middle of my face. And I was not muscular for my age, rather I was stocky.
“You were just like the child I had always dreamt of,” she repeated and then suddenly began to scrutinize my face thoughtfully. “You are so much like Naveen.”
I could now see the emptiness in her eyes. It felt as though she was looking for something that she knew was not there. I said, “Your child madam, where is it?”
She pulled away her hands as though she had touched hot irons. Her suppressed sobs now burst forth. “It was never born,” she wailed, “they lied to me. Both of them.”
For a few minutes the room resounded with her crying. I watched dumbfounded. My existence was suddenly nullified. I was shocked beyond words.
But then she had regained her composure. “That night I had began to feel the pangs of pain as the sun began to set. I had not felt such panic as on that day. Something in me told me that my child was in danger. I wanted it to be saved. Everybody seemed to be frightened, even the doctors. Everyone was telling me not to be frightened, that everything was going to be all right. I was only thinking of my child. The last memory was not of the extreme pain that I felt, but of the fear that I would lose my child. But every memory seemed to fade away soon. For a brief period I must have felt a great relief. I had heard the sweetest voice in the world that sent me to sleep – the cry of my child.
I woke up the next day. But the cradle beside me was empty. Maa and Naveen were beside me. Their blank faces told me all. But I refused to believe. I had heard the cry afterall. But no amount of pleading could bring my dead child back to me.
Life turned to normal as soon as we reached home. Atleast everyone else thought that. But it was not. Naveen was the first to observe the change in me. He was still sorry for the pain he caused me. He asked me, “The child is gone and I promise we would never be careless again. Then why are you worried.” I would not answer him. But he knew me better than myself. He said, “I know that you wanted the child. But it died before it was born.” “I heard its cry,” I protested. He said, “Maa could not have kept the dead child for you to cry over. She took it away as soon as it was born.” I saw him looking down to the ground deep in thought. And then he said slowly, “At first I too felt uneasy with the child. But I never wanted it to die. I wanted it so much as the time of its birth drew near.” ”
I sighed in relief. They had loved me. But I was becoming more and more puzzled.
“We began to meet each other too little. It was as though an invisible line had been drawn between us. Whenever we met he was always lost in thought. I could always see a fear in his eyes. Many a times he would ask me if I thought that he had started to love me less. Sometimes he would plead to be forgiven for anything that should have caused me pain. The new fear that seemed to surround him affected me as well. I was beginning to become more and more concerned.
And then the mystery began to unfold itself. Probably between Maa and Naveen they had kept the secret too secure each suffering in their own way. Naveen had done it unintentionally but it changed my whole life.
Naveen was growing fearsome with each passing day. Every moment he needed to assure himself that I was with him. Seeing his condition I thought that we should spend more time together. We would often go out on long walks in the evening. It did not start out very well and for many days there was no change in his mood. But then these long walks together began to please him and he never for once failed to come.”
One evening we had set out on our usual evening tours. He was in a very happy mood. We had just completed graduation and he had got a job. We were planning to marry soon. And then that accident happened. A child ran out to the street to get his ball. The street was all empty. And then all of a sudden from nowhere a car sped out. The last thing that we heard was the mother’s heart renting cry. The child was smashed under the car.
A crowd gathered around the fleeing car. The people took the driver out and kicks and fists showered on him. All of a sudden Naveen became a part of the crowd. But his madness frightened me. I felt he would kill the man. Even when the police arrived they found it difficult to free the man of his hands. It was with great difficulty that I could pull him to our car.
I took him to a secluded place. I needed to talk to him. He was still fuming with rage. I tried to soothe him with words, but he only grew angrier.
At last I said exasperated, “It was not your child.”
“You would have understood the pain if it was your child,” he said.
The words were like acid to me. I said angrily, “My child is dead.”
“Its not,” he shouted.
A stunned silence followed. I could feel the blood race up to my head. I felt I should fall down. “Medini,” he said concerned. “Repeat your words,” I almost commanded.
“Your condition was too bad that night. Between Maa, the doctors and I, we decided we did not want the child. But surprisingly the child was born and it did not harm you a bit. It was such a beautiful child. For a moment I held it to my heart unwilling to part with it. But I had already promised Maa that I would be strong. I did not even see the child for the last time when she handed it to the man who happily took the child away.”
“You gave away my child. How could you?” I shouted angrily. “Whom did you give my child, tell me.” “I do not know at all,” he said honestly, “Maa made me swear that I should not speak a word. She loves you a lot and felt the child was a trouble for you. I could not protest. Afterall I was responsible for all these.” I was angry on him, but I was also sorry for him. He said, “I had never wanted the child. But I cannot live without my child.”
I spent a lot of time searching for any clue of my child. I found nothing. I was going to give up hope. And then I suddenly remembered that for months my father had been continuously sending money to an old servent of ours, Maheshji. Why should he? I began to calculate in my mind. He had left us for Shimla and got married there. But for years he was childless. And my child was born in Shimla.
I went straight to my mother with my query. We had a long argument, but she would not speak. Naveen had no clues to offer. I decided I should take the step. Somehow I managed to find out Maheshji’s address. I wrote a letter to him thanking him for keeping my child. I hoped that in this way I could come to know about my child. But no answer came.
I decided to act. I wanted my child back. I decided to go to Shimla.”
She looked at me. My heart was racing fast. I waited for her to speak again.
“I did go. But it was too late. They had left the city afterall. I never found my child.”
There was a sudden silence which I wanted to break. It was unbearable for me to think that I would hide my identity now when my mother would be happy to know who I am. But before I spoke she said, “I decided to go back. I had not told anyone when I left home. Now I decided to call back home.”
She paused again. It seemed she was no longer interested in this part of the story. But then I realized that she was suppressing a cry. I asked, “Were they angry that you had left home?”
“No, they were relieved when I called back. They feared that I had suicided. My mother promised me that I would have my child back.”
“Did she tell you about your child?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I was happy that she would tell me. All were relieved that I would be happy now. I would return back home. And Naveen too was happy. He would have his child back.”
“Where is the child?” I asked. She was starled by the sudden excitement in my voice. But she had paused for a second only and then she began her story again.
“I was undecided when she told me that I could have my child back. I had decided to come to Shimla in sudden excitement. But when I decided that I was going back home I had a sense of relief. I was freed of my past. I decided to tell this to my mother as soon as I would meet her.”
Anger and frustration flushed through my whole body. ‘She had never loved me.’ The thought hit me like a whiplash.
“Naveen brought me back home. My mother was so happy to get me back that as soon as I stepped inside the home she took me in my arms and sobbing told me, “I promise I would tell you of your child. He is still there in Shimla.” I did not wait for her to continue. I said simply, “Maa, I have buried my past and came back to you. I have caused you a lot of pain. I would not do it again. I want to settle down.”
I ground my teeth. She seemed unconscious of the angry movements I made with my feet. She seemed to be lost in her own thoughts. A smile appeared on her lips.
“But my mother knew me better than anyone else. For the next few weeks I was happy. My mother was again making arrangements for my marriage. The date was fixed. Ornaments and clothes had been purchased. Everything was smooth sailing. But my mother knew me better.”
Miss Medini put a hand on my shoulder. Then she stopped for a moment to look at my face. “A mother knows the best for her child,” she said. “The night before my marriage she came to my room. I was sitting all alone looking through the old albums. But I had myself not known how long I had sat with the photograph of my mother holding me in her arms as a tiny infant. Maybe Maa had been standing there all the time. She wiped off the tears that flowed from my eyes without myself knowing that I was crying. She left the room and came back carrying a little paper in her hands. She handed it to me and said, “You should do what you think is right.” At last I knew where I could find my child. My mother had given me the address of Maheshji.
I now knew what I should do. Leaving a note for my mother I left home in the darkness of the night. I arrived at Shimla the next day.”
Large tears rolled down my eyes. I wished to throw my arms around her and cry.
“Did you not marry… Naveen,” I hesitated on my father’s name.
“I did not, I never could,” she said.
She gathered herself in a bundle. I felt an urgent desire to hide in her embrace. But now ‘my mother’ was not prepared to know about me. I decided to go away, I would come back again.
I wiped off her tears and said, “Miss, I think I should go now.”
Her head shot up. She held my hand, “Would you have hated me for being your mother?”
I felt tears gathering at my eyes. I held them back.
“No,” I answered.
She broke off into another wave of tears. Her sorrow was too much for her. She did not even realize when I left her at midnight.
The walk back home was too much difficult. I was not prepared to live without my mother alone. I wanted her, she was my mother.
I realization was the greatest happiness to me. She was my ‘Maa’. The word itself fulfilled me. It made me complete.
The next morning was the most beautiful for me. The night had seemed too long, now the light of the day was welcoming. I did not care to eat, I no longer had a hungry stomach. I wanted only my mother.
I had stepped out of my home. But then I realized, some answers I had not got yet, “Did she know who I am?” I smiled to myself and decided, “I will tell her.” I did not forget to take her letter along with me.
The walk to her house did not take me long. I was happy, nay I was happy beyond words.
There was a car, a big car, parked in front of her house. There was the principal’s secretary standing near the car. I wondered what had happened. A thousand thoughts crossed my mind.
I ran forward. “Hey,” the secretary called me. But I had no time to wait.
Two teachers stood at the door. I looked at them. Their eyes conveyed nothing. I walked in. The room was almost full. I looked about. My mind triggered an alarm. The principal saw me and said, “My child, there’s bad news…”
I heard nothing. I had no need to. On the sofa, as I had left exactly, she was sitting. I wondered then what the bad news was. The folds of her sari was as it was, neatly pleated; her hair still silken; her skin still fair and golden; but her eyes.
The letter crumpled in my hand. “I hate you.” I would have shouted out to her. But the words died in my throat. I then wanted nothing except her.
I do not know what happened after that. I only remember holding that cold body in my arms and wailing and that holding me from all sides were only hands foreign to me. I knew only that my mother wasn’t there with me.
And then the strong hands held me. “Do not cry, my child.” I heard as I was pulled into the comfort of a warm embrace. I only heard myself say, “Maa.” I was pulled tighter into that warm embrace. And then I slept.
The cremation did not take long. I woke up that morning with a hope. The evening I watched the setting sun all alone, again.
I was about to return to my house. I had sat on the bare ground of the school for a long time. There was nothing that I needed to think about. The letter still lay crumpled in my hand.
“You are fine.” I felt the familiar soothing touch on my shoulders. “You are fine, my child.”
I turned to see a pair of chocolate brown eyes look into mine, the exact colour of mine. The man said, “I am Naveen.”
I stood up. Here was my father, the man who had wanted me, but had rejected me. I began to walk away.
“I came for her,” I stood to listen. “She called me up last night. She told me about you.”
I turned my head to pay attention to what he said. He continued, “Would you come with me?”
I looked up at the sky. “No.”
He hurried to hold me back. But I walked away from his touch. From a distance I looked back to see him. He was reading the letter that I had thrown on the ground. I saw his tears glisten on his cheeks.
He looked up to see me. I turned away my face. I knew he would have asked me to come with me if he knew who I was. Was that what I wanted?
Maa…the word sounded hollow to me. I had loved them both, but I belonged to none.
I looked at the setting sun and blinked. But no tears blinded me. Only my mind asked me, “Did ‘my mother’ ever know who I was?”
I still didn’t know…